Spotlight on research: Physics professor wins research prize

Nathaniel Vilas ’17, Eli Hoenig ’17 and Bingyi Wang ’18 helped Majumder with research this summer. Photo courtesy of Tiku Majumder.
Nathaniel Vilas ’17, Eli Hoenig ’17 and Bingyi Wang ’18 helped Majumder with research this summer. Photo courtesy of Tiku Majumder.

In October, Professor of Physics Protik “Tiku” Majumder received the American Physical Society (APS) Prize for a Faculty Member for Research at an Undergraduate Institution.

The APS is a nonprofit organization that fosters the advancement and education of the knowledge of physics. Majumder is the third professor from the College to receive this award. The other two recipients were Stuart Crampton in 1989 and William Wootters in 2007.

Majumder has been recognized for research that analyzes the atomic structures within metallic elements. “The primary tools of our research are lasers. We use various samples of certain atoms that we study, and we use the lasers as tools to study the structure of those atoms,” Majumder said. “We’re looking at details of atomic structure that’s kind of hidden inside.”

Majumder explained that his work requires different kinds of scientific thinking. “The atoms that we study are metals at room temperature, so in order to study them in the way we want with lasers, they have to go through a gas of these atoms,” he said. “So we need to heat them up a lot. Even though I’m a physicist, a lot of what we do involves engineering challenges.”

Physics research falls under two categories: experimental and theoretical. Majumder focuses on experimental research, although what he does is more conceptual than applicable. “We’re testing if our fundamental understanding of concepts is correct at some level. It’s not like in the lab we’re building something that’s immediately going to be some technological new device,” he said.

Majumder emphasized that he is thankful for the College’s community of teachers and students that has made this award possible. “Williams really provides the culture to make this happen, and I don’t think it could have happened without the support of the institution,” he said. “There’s no way I could have done all this great work I did over the last twenty years without all of these great students.”

Majumder has high hopes for the future of the College’s physics department in continuing this quality of work. He emphasized the potential for other professors and their research and commended the College’s history of quality research. “Bill Wootters, who is now retiring from our department, won this same award ten years ago, and I think others in my department could win this award in the future,” he said.

Majumder believes that much of the College’s success is due to the students. He said that his award is ultimately “a testament to the excellence of the students we have here. We don’t have graduate students, so we need undergrads who are really ready to go and excited about the idea of doing research.”

Majumder feels that this award will make an impact on how people perceive the College as a site for research opportunities for both current and prospective students. People make a lot of assumptions about small liberal arts colleges, and research is not always associated with them. Majumder hopes that achievements like his award will change that. The award “really reflects on the whole research-with-undergraduate enterprise, not just in the physics department, but in science at Williams in general,” he said.

Majumder went to Yale as an undergraduate and received his doctorate from Harvard before coming to the College in 1994. He has taught classes on topics ranging from quantum physics to electricity and magnetism. He said that what drew him to the College most was how it fit with what he wanted to accomplish as a teacher. His experiences as an undergraduate helped him discover the kind of institution in which he wanted to teach.

“I had an okay experience physics-wise [at Yale],” Majumder said. “I had some good teachers; I had some not-so-good teachers. I got lucky and was able to find a research opportunity, which is not that common as an undergrad at big places. I found a really good research experience that helped me realize that I wanted to do physics. I would not have known that I wanted to do this just from going to classes. The longer that I was at big universities, the more I realized that I wanted a job where teaching was important.”

When deciding where to teach, Majumder aimed for the balance between teaching in the traditional sense and mentorship. While teaching undergraduates was a priority of his, he also wanted the research potential for professors that is offered at larger universities. “There are lots of big universities where teaching really isn’t the same way, and there are many small colleges that don’t have the resources to support research the way Williams does,” he said. “Williams is a great fit for me because it allows me to work with undergraduates but also have ambitious research goals.”